James Henson is a lecturer in the Department of Government and directs the Texas Politics Project, which seeks to educate students and Texans about state government, politics and history through a dynamic Web site and speaker series. It also conducts regular statewide issues and political polls.
The low-key politics of summer campaigning are giving way to the traditional post-Labor Day transition into the more active, public phase of the gubernatorial campaign.
As the tide of televised campaign ads begins to rise, the Perry-White race seems to have settled into a pattern as the campaigns begin to mount broader public appeals. The last four publicly released polls have shown Perry leading White by six or seven points.
Perry has registered double digit leads, but only twice in the 19 polls plotted in the chart below. (Select the graphic to view a larger version of the chart in a new browser window.) The un-weighted average of the gap between Perry and White in the 19 polls is +6.62 percentage points. The series is strongly influenced by the nine monthly Rasmussen polls.
The overall average of these is a very rough gauge of how the race has developed in its less public phase. Only the two most recent polls reflect surveys of a public that has seen widely broadcast ads by both sides. White did some TV and radio advertising during the summer, probably out of necessity since he started the campaign much less well known than the 10-year incumbent he's seeking to unseat.
An embrace for the GOP, a polite hug for Perry
The oddly stable 6-point lead held by Perry in the last few polls is fraught with ambiguity for both campaigns.
The governor has never actually polled behind White, even if a couple of outliers have had them even. But he is consistently falling fall short of the Republican numbers in the generic party preference match-ups, which isn't a sign of strength. Perry led White by six points in the September University of Texas at Austin/Texas Tribune (UT/TT) poll, but the same survey registered a 15-point Republican advantage in both congressional and state legislative generic match-ups (that is, where no candidate is named).
While it makes sense for the top of the ticket to be closer than the generic match up in this environment, it's difficult not to notice the gap between the embrace of the Republican label and the polite hug of the governor. Perry's approval numbers, while not tanking, seem more or less stuck. He's been right around 40 percent approval in the UT/TT poll for months, and his disapproval number has tended to be about the same. For a figure who has led the state for 10 years, six points provides slim padding against a mishap, bad luck or some other kind of unpleasant October surprise.
A different dynamic in Texas
Regarding the oft-discussed Republican wave, the dynamic in Texas is somewhat different from nationally.
Republicans are already close to the high water mark here, holding majorities in both houses of the state legislature, a monopoly on statewide elected office, a majority in the congressional delegation, both U.S. Senate seats and scores of appointed positions.
This is a problematic context for thinking about a "wave" energized in large part by a national message of throwing out the party in charge. In persistently bad economic times, this is a plausible Republican message nationally. But the message doesn't translate directly to Texas without massaging.
The state of the polls is a mixed bag for White, too. This is a closer race than many people expected. But the environment is still a very hostile one for a Democrat, even one of moderate temperament and politics like White. Overtaking Perry by election day requires mobilizing every Democratic vote White can, hanging on to the independents he is attracting (he's outpolled Perry among independents willing to express a preference) and, most important, convincing fence-sitting independents and moderates to give him enough of a chance to either vote when they usually wouldn't or to vote for a Democrat when they are not in the habit of doing so.
This isn't impossible, but it is very daunting, and doing all that still might not be enough. Put simply: there are a lot of Republicans in the pool of likely voters, and all indications are that they, at this point, are much more eager to vote than Democrats.
The gap between the governor's numbers and the generic Republican numbers may seem to reflect poorly on Perry. But it also implies a reserve of Republican identifiers willing to rally around a Republican when the time comes to actually cast their votes.
White also had to contend with the breadth and intensity of the president's negative approval numbers in Texas. The UT/TT poll found that 50 percent of our sample of self-reported registered voters disapproved strongly of the job the president was doing, and other polls are registering comparable numbers. The White campaign, of course, has kept its distance from Obama, but the Perry campaign takes every opportunity to remind voters that the president is the national leader of White's party.
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